How to Stay Optimistic When Bad Things Happen


As much as we don’t want them to, bad things happen in life and the world. Sometimes they happen in drips and drops; sometimes these bad things arrive in a crashing torrent. And amongst all the questions these bad things provoke, the most important is always: how do we move forward from these bad things in a way that’s constructive, and promotes growth and healing? With recent events in the world, I've been reflecting on how to stay optimistic when bad things happen.I’ve arrived here: the only constructive way to move forward is with rational optimism.I say rational optimism because rose-tinted pie-in-the-sky over-optimism is just as harmful as extreme pessimism. I feel all the feelings when I hear about death, murder and tragic and unjust things happening in the world. But I feel these things, and I feel optimistic because the reality is we have a lot to be optimistic about.Here are a few things I find helpful to remember:

1. How to stay optimistic? Look at the bigger picture.

Despite the bad things that have happened recently, here is the truth: the world is a less violent place than it was 30 years ago.This isn’t something you’d believe watching the news, but it’s reality, as this article by Stephen Pinker and Andrew Mack explains:“Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012… The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.”It’s also helpful to look at the bigger picture regarding our quality of life.People are in general living longer, medical technology and treatments are better than they’ve ever been. We have more resources in the form of food, shelter, and material goods than we’ve ever had before.[Tweet "Despite what we see and hear, the world is a less violent place than it was 30 years ago."]On a self-actualisation level, people have more autonomy over their lives than ever. We don’t need to rely on school or university for education; we can seek it out ourselves. Someone in Cameroon can go online and take an MIT class. We can print 3D objects! The gatekeepers of knowledge have largely been removed and everything I’m using to share this with you now was created within the last 80 years. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty mind-blowing.

2. Stop watching the news

I haven’t owned a TV for nearly seven years now, and so I haven’t really watched the news during that time. And far from missing out on things, I’ve not missed it at all. In fact, it’s had a net positive effect on my life.For a variety of reasons, the majority of the news we tend to hear and see is about negative events in the world. In the age of social media, bad news spreads like wildfire, stokes people’s emotions and grips our attention for longer than it would have a few years ago. One of the reasons the world seems like a more violent place isn’t because it objectively is; it’s because communication is much better now than it was even a decade ago.As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s a good thing.Here’s another quote from the Pinker and Mack article:“Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from “experts” with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.”The news is not a reflection of reality, and we do ourselves a huge favour when we stop treating it like one.

3. Be a beacon, not a black hole

I don’t believe bad things happen for a reason. I know that bad things happen. Period. They happen. And so it’s up to us to make of them what we will.I choose to view these as a reminder of what’s important to me in life.It’s a reminder to prioritise what’s truly important to me. It’s a reminder to let go of all the petty things I’m susceptible to dwelling on and a reminder that every day I’m alive I have one day less left to live. It’s a sobering thought, but it makes me that much more present and that much more determined to make the most out of the time I do have. When it comes to how to stay optimistic, it's important to remember: it's a choice.Bad things do happen. And we have a choice how we respond to them. We have a choice whether to get sucked into this black hole of judging, blaming and shaming or whether to be a beacon, shining a light on all the good things that are happening in the world too.[Tweet "Bad things don't happen for a reason. They happen, period. We choose how to respond."]Take your outrage, your pain, your judgements about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in response to what’s happened, and do something that matters in your own life.Tell the people you care that you care, spread kindness, volunteer, add 10% more patience to your interactions, donate to a good cause—whatever floats your boat. But let’s focus on sorting out our own house first before we get concerned with how other people should be managing theirs.We live in a big a beautiful world. It’s not a world without problems, strife and uncertainty. Bad things can happen, and they do happen. But it’s important not to let the problems, strife and uncertainty and these bad things overlook the fact that overall life, in general, is getting better with every decade.And, as the people who are alive right now, it’s up to us to embrace that fact and use it to carry us forward into the future.What are your suggestions for how to stay optimistic when bad things happen? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.Image: Jenelle Ball